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  Selena Quintanilla Perez

April 16, 1971 - March 31, 1995

Selena Quintanilla-Perez, now an icon in Tejano and mainstream Latino, Texas and pop culture, was born on April 16, 1971 to Abraham (II) and Marcella Quintanilla at Freeport Community Hospital, just outside their hometown of Lake Jackson, a small Texas community of 23,000, 75 miles from Houston. At the time of Selena’s birth, the Quintanillas had two other children, Abraham (A.B.) III, 8, and Suzette, 4.

Initially when Marcella began experiencing pregnancy symptoms, a doctor misdiagnosed her, declaring that she had a tumor that needed to be removed. Only after the Quintanillas went for a second opinion, did they receive an
accurate diagnosis.

Upon learning of the pregnancy, both parents picked “Marc Antony” as the name for their baby, convinced that they were going to have a boy. Then when Marcella gave birth to a healthy, 5-pound baby girl, they chose “Selena” at the suggestion of her hospital roommate.

At the time of Selena’s birth, Abraham worked in the shipping department of Dow Chemical, the anchor company of their community with a strong passion for music.

Earlier, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, he and a few friends had formed a band “Los Dinos” and performed a mix of rock ‘n’ roll and traditional Mexican songs at nightclubs and restaurants in Corpus Christi. However, due to limited opportunities, Abraham had to give up the band when he married and took the job at Dow Chemical to support his family. Even though he gave up the band, Abraham’s passion for music didn’t die. Accordingly he taught his children how to play an instrument at an early age. A.B. III was taught bass and Suzette, the drums.

By the time Selena was three, Abraham spent many hours working with A.B. III and Suzette. Feeling excluded, Selena confronted her father, demanding to know why she couldn’t learn an instrument. When told that she was too young, Selena decided to sing.

Before long Abraham was convinced that Selena had a special talent. He was especially influenced by her sheer determination. Abraham’s belief was further enhanced when one day, Selena, then only 5, came up to him and began to sing with purity and perfect pitch as he strummed his guitar. Her rendition of a song sung by the Little Anthony and the Imperials over the radio was amazing.

“I always wanted to go back into the music business, but I felt like I was already getting too old, and my kids were growing up,” Selena’s father later reflected in an interview. “When I found out Selena could sing, that’s when the wheels started turning in my mind. I saw the chance to get back in the music world through my kids.”
[1]

A year later, Abraham was convinced that Selena was destined to be a star, especially since she shared his passion for music and her voice had a special quality to it. “…She had that extra thing that makes an artist. Of course, nobody believed me at the time,” he recalled.
[2]

Then with Marcella’s blessing, Abraham converted the family garage into a soundproof studio. He bought a set of drums and obtained a used bass from a friend. Afterwards, he taught Selena how to sing in Spanish. At first she sung using phonetics but quickly progressed until she could sing flawlessly with emotion.

Prior to being taught how to sing in Spanish, English had been Selena’s first and only language. However, afterwards when she could sing with perfection in Spanish, Selena still found it difficult to converse fluently in that language. Her thinking was slow and her word selection awkward. As a result, Selena relied on her effervescent personality, radiant smile and interpreters to get by with Spanish-language interviews. Because of Selena’s laughter at her own mistakes, the Spanish media overlooked her difficulties.

Prior to Selena’s enrollment in an intensive Spanish course to gain proficiency, her parents were terrified at the prospect of their daughter facing 30+ Mexican reporters in a Monterrey, Mexico press conference coordinated by EMI Mexico. Afterwards, although Selena’s answers sounded ridiculous, she had won every reporter’s heart by hugging each one of them. As a result they wrote kindly of her, declaring that she was an “Artist of the People.”
[3] Nevertheless, by December 1994, Selena had mastered the Spanish language.

Once everyone was proficient at their musical tasks — A.B. III on bass, Suzette on the drums and 9 year-old Selena at singing, Abraham formed a family band called “Selena Y Los Dinos".  Afterwards they practiced almost every night.

Initially Selena was the only one who enjoyed the rehearsals; A.B. III and Suzette preferred to play with their friends. Later on, though, all of the Quintanilla children got into music. Before long they were creating extemporaneous compositions.

When Selena attended Oran M. Roberts Elementary School, she tried to excel at and participate in everything. She “tried really hard at whatever she was doing and was eager to learn - the kind of student you always like to have,” Selena’s first grade teacher, Nina McGlashan recalled.
[4]

As a child, Selena was upbeat with a big smile and constantly cheerful. She was also extroverted and athletic with a gift of bringing others together in the playground. She was well liked by her peers and excelled in several of the class games - running faster and jumping further than most.

Though athletic, Selena also enjoyed playing with dolls. She liked to work with their hair and dress them in custom outfits she made, a prelude to her dream of opening a boutique. Even the one occasion when Selena badly burned a doll’s hair while using a curling iron, did not deter her.

In addition, Selena exercised maturity and respectfulness when in the company of adults, always addressing them with “Yes/No sir/ma’am.” Although she got into mischief once in a while, Selena, with her strict upbringing in a well-disciplined family that looked out for each other, knew when to behave and be polite.

In the summer of 1980, Abraham Quintanilla quit his job at Dow Chemical and opened Papa Gayo’s, a family-run restaurant that featured quality meals and live entertainment. In an attempt to succeed, Abraham poured all of his life-savings into it and everyone pitched in to help.

Papa Gayo’s also gave Selena Y Los Dinos their first real public exposure, as they frequently performed in front of patrons during evenings. Selena became an instant favorite. One patron commented, “It was so unusual. You wouldn’t expect to see a kid get up and sing in a restaurant like that. …she always had a lot of enthusiasm.”
[5]

Soon every patron shared Abraham’s belief that Selena was destined for stardom.

Initially during their performances at Papa Gayo’s, Selena Y Los Dinos sung renditions of current Top 40 mainstream hits in English and occasional pop oldies using Spanish lyrics that Abraham had written. However, just when things were about to take off, the recession of 1980-81 struck forcing many oil wells, the life-blood of Texas, to shut down. With people out of work, Papa Gayo’s along with the other businesses lost many customers. With mounting debts and little hope of recovery, Abraham was forced to close the restaurant and move the family back to Corpus Christi.

Yet despite their desperation, Abraham never gave up. He continued to believe in Selena’s talent and did whatever he could to assist her. Music became the Quintanilla’s sole source of income as Selena Y Los Dinos traveled to various clubs and restaurants and performed at weddings and other special occasions. During those times, even if each made only $5 or $10, they were happy since they could eat and go shopping.

Gradually their hard work and determination began to pay dividends. Selena Y Los Dinos recorded their first album, “Mis Primeras Grabaciones” in 1984 under the Freddie Records Label. However, aside from some radio play of the “Ya Se Va” track, “Mis Primeras Grabaciones” didn’t do very well and was not released until 11 years later when Abraham purchased the rights.

Although during “Mis Primeras Grabaciones” recording sessions Selena needed fewer cuts than many, Freddie Records felt she needed more time to develop. Abraham rejected this and moved the band first to Cara Records and then to the Manny Label.

As Selena’s popularity grew placing additional demands on the band (e.g. more travel) Abraham removed Selena from the 8th grade, drawing immediate unwarranted criticism. Some accused him of violating child labor laws while others warned that he was ruining his kids. “They’ll be surrounded by drinking and drugs” and “it’s going to have an effect on them,” the critics incorrectly predicted.
[6]

Despite the skeptics, Selena remained unaffected. She continued to have fun and enjoy singing. She kept her down-to-earth personality and refused to snub anyone, believing that “if you treat people good, it [will] come back” in the end.
[7]

Accordingly, Selena always maintained a great repertoire with her fans and audience.
[8] At the same time, she also kept up with her academics and earned a G.E.D. from a Chicago-based Correspondence School at 17.

As Selena was growing into a star, her brother, A.B. III was becoming an accomplished songwriter and producer, after originally taking it up to supply his youngest sister with the quality, original material that the band lacked.

One of his first songs, “Dame Un Beso” enjoyed moderate success. Before long, A.B. III supplanted his father as the band’s leading songwriter. In addition, Ricky Vela, another band member also assisted with music composition.

When the band’s second album, “Alpha” was released, it brought Selena her first music honors. She won “Female Vocalist of the Year” at the 1987 West Texas Hispanic Music Awards and KFLZ Awards ceremonies and was voted “Female Vocalist of the Year” and “Performer of the Year” at the Tejano Music Awards.

This recognition introduced Selena to two influential people: Rick Trevino, founder of the Tejano Music Awards and Johnny Canales, a television personality on one of the top-rated Spanish shows. Their efforts gave Selena much needed publicity, expanding the horizons for Selena Y Los Dinos.

Two more albums, “Preciosa” and “Dulce Amor” were released in 1988 earning Selena greater recognition. With album sales exceeding 20,000, Selena’s name began to spread beyond Texas. Not surprisingly, Selena was a finalist for “Female Vocalist of the Year” for 1988 and “Terco Corazon” and A.B. III were nominated for “Single of the Year” and “Songwriter of the Year,” respectively, at the Tejano Music Awards.

Despite Selena’s growing fame, the Quintanillas lifestyle had not changed much. They continued to live on beans and hamburgers and shared just about everything. As a result, they had “Nobody You Know” written at the top of the band’s bus, “Big Bertha’s” front windshield.

Their fortunes, though, changed dramatically when Selena was signed by Jose Behar, the former head of Sony’s Latin music division and creator of the Capitol/EMI Latin label in 1989. The signing came about when Behar and a friend, Mario Ruiz, who became President of EMI Mexico attended the 1989 Tejano Music Awards searching for new talent and discovered Selena. The events went as follows according to the account by Jose Behar:

"…We were standing at the back of the auditorium when we saw her. Mario and I looked at each other like, ‘Wow. This is special."…I said, "It’s interesting. Women don’t sell in the Tejano market."

And they really hadn’t.

Yet I said to myself, "This is the crossover act I’m looking for.”
[9]

Afterwards, Behar, believing that he had found the next Gloria Estefan, a popular and successful crossover Latin artist went backstage and met and signed Selena after talking to her father. At the time, Behar never imagined how many records Selena would eventually sell.

Despite her signing with Capitol/EMI Latin and her taking “Female Vocalist of the Year” honors at the 1989 and 1990 Tejano Music Awards, and also “Female Entertainer of the Year” at the 1990 Tejano Music Awards, Selena’s first few new releases did little better than her previous ones.

However, another breakthrough came in 1991 when she was paired with Alvaro Torres in “Buenos Amigos.” Their video soared to #1 on the Billboard Latin Tracks Chart giving Selena national exposure. An appearance on “Donde Quiero Que Estes” with the Barrio Boyzz, an immensely popular Latin band further enhanced Selena’s rising stature, enabling her to enter the international Latin market with her solo hits, “La Carcacha” and “Como La Flor".

Johnny Canales then helped make Selena an instant celebrity in Mexico leading to an offer star in a leading role in a Mexican Soap opera, which she turned down because of its steamy scenes. Though determined to make it big, Selena wasn’t about to sacrifice her principles. She valued her appeal to her broad audience that consisted of young children and grandparents alike.

Performing in skin-tight pants, low-cut bustiers, and shiny outfits was her limit. Unlike many others, Selena did not need to forego her morals for fame. Her natural-born talent was sufficient. In addition, when Johnny Canales compared Selena to Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson, all pop stars, he declared, “I’d say [Selena] was like those people, but better. Those people never sang Tejano. She could do what they do, but it would be hard for them to do what she does".
[10]

Also during this time, the Los Dinos Band was expanding, providing Selena with some of her happiest moments. Pete Astudillo, a Laredo, Texas native and talented artist joined in 1989. Together, he and Selena went on to perform hit duets like “Yo Te Amo” and “Amame, Quiereme.”
[11] Accordingly the pair were twice nominated for “Vocal Duo of the Year” at the Tejano Music Awards.

A second great addition was Chris Perez, who briefly joined Los Dinos in 1988, left a year later to try it on his own, and then returned in 1990. Chris was a talented guitarist who eventually became Selena’s husband. They were married on April 2, 1992.

Although Selena’s father initially opposed the marriage, he soon viewed Chris as “a son.”
[12] Afterwards, Selena and Chris shared a nearby house, with her parents living next door in one house and her brother, A.B. III and his wife and children in another. Between the three houses there were nine dogs, five of which belonged to Selena, an avid animal lover. Later the pair bought a piece of land a little further away with plans to build a larger house to start a family and run a small farm. Prior to her death, Selena had already picked out the furniture.

As Selena’s career took off, she released two hit albums: “Ven Conmigo” featuring the hit song “Baila Esta Cumbia” in 1990 and “Entre A Mi Mundo” featuring the hit songs “La Carcacha” and “Como La Flor” in 1992. The great success of these albums completed Selena’s transformation from “unknown” to “star.” Then a show featuring Selena, La Mafia, and Emilia Navaira at the Summit in Houston in the summer of 1991 drew more than 9,000 people. Next followed “Selena Live” in 1993, which gave the young singer her first Grammy along with three Tejano Awards, opening the door to mainstream pop.

After four years of attempts, Jose Behar, using Selena’s soaring popularity and sales to their advantage, finally convinced EMI’s pop division to give her the crossover chance she had been dreaming of. Prior to 1993, Behar had faced repeated setbacks and had to start over each time when key executives left the company. As one EMI executive, Nancy Brennan, Vice President of Artist and Repertoire summarized, “All he [Behar] ever talked about was Selena. He was like a broken record, ‘Selena, Selena…’”
[13]

Brennan was exposed to Selena when she attended a Billboard Latin Music Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada to see Jon Secada, an immensely popular EMI artist. There, Selena’s opening made a lasting impression. By December 1993, Selena had been signed by EMI’s SBK subsidiary to begin her crossover album, which took a year-and-a-half to produce due to the tedious effort of finding the right songs and producers.

The 1994 “Amor Prohibido” success also added to the crossover delays since Selena was requested to appear everywhere. Nancy Brennan recounted one such episode when had been forced to postpone a recording session: “This is the first time I have ever made a debut album by an artist who was too busy to record for me. How can you tell someone, ‘No I don’t want you to play the Astrodome for 60,000 people; I want you to work on your record.’ Everyone wants her.”
[14]

The Amor Prohibido album featuring four #1 Latin Singles (title track “Amor Prohibido” “No Me Queda Mas,” “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” and “Fotos Y Recuerdos” launched Selena’s greatest year to date. When Amor Prohibido came out, it promptly replaced Gloria Estefan’s “Mi Tierra” at #1 on Billboard’s Latin Tracks Charts and even made the top 200 on Billboard’s Pop Charts.

It led to six awards at the Tejano Music Awards ceremony attended by more than 45,000 people - “Female Entertainer of the Year,” “Female Vocalist of the Year,” “Orchestra Album of the Year,” Record of the Year,” “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” “Song of the Year,” and “Techno Cumbia, “Crossover Song of the Year.” More than 400,000 copies had sold at the time of Selena’s death less than a year after its release.

Selena also realized two more dreams in 1994. First, she opened a boutique/salon in Corpus Christi called “Selena Etc". Since childhood, Selena had dreamed of designing clothing and jewelry.

Second, she played a bit-role “Don Juan DeMarco,” a film released in early 1995 that starred Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp and offered the potential of leading to greater and perhaps leading roles. Acting had been a recent dream of Selena’s.

With the impending release of Selena’s cross-over album, “Dreaming of You,” her wide-spread fame and rocketing demand, a million-dollar record deal, a Grammy Award, endorsements from sponsors like Coca Cola and her own line of clothing, it seemed like Selena’s meteoric career could only rise higher. By this time, Selena had been named “one of the most successful Latin entertainers in the world by Hispanic Business magazine.

The sold-out Astrodome Concert for the Houston Livestock and Rodeo February 1995 with a crowd of 61,000+, at the time, the largest in Astrodome history only strengthened this belief. Yet ironically and almost prophetically, when Selena was asked to speculate on her future during a July 1994 interview, she modestly stated, “I just hope still to be alive, hopefully singing still and later on, maybe 10 years yonder, I hope to have a family by then.”
[15]

Four years earlier, Yolanda Saldivar, a self-professed “biggest Selena fan” had come into Selena’s life after persistently requesting to start a fan club in her honor. Although Abraham had initially refused, he eventually gave in when Saldivar agreed to make it “not-for-profit” and donate leftover proceeds to charity. Eventually Yolanda’s relationship with the Quintanillas deepened when Selena named her Operations Manager to handle sales, customer-relations, and Selena Etc.’s finances.

At the time, no one saw Saldivar’s dark obsession. Furthermore, no one had been aware that Saldivar had failed to pay off a $5300 student loan, left her nursing job under suspicious circumstances, been turned down by Shelly Lares, a prominent, young Tejano singer to form a “Shelly Lares Fan Club,” and been accused of stealing $9200 from a dermatologist she had worked for.

However, by early 1995, Abraham Quintanilla began to receive complaints from upset fans who reported that they were not receiving the Selena packets, consisting of a T-shirt, baseball cap, cassette/CD, and autographed poster they had paid for in membership dues. Money also began to go missing from the boutiques. With their suspicions growing, the Quintanillas conducted an investigation and discovered that Saldivar had written four checks, including one to herself for $3000 from the Fan Club’s books. Selena’s father then angrily confronted Saldivar who claimed she could explain everything if given some time.

Afterwards, Saldivar purchased a .38 caliber gun.

Yet despite the mounting evidence, Selena sent Saldivar to Mexico to assist with opening a Selena Etc. boutique in Monterrey. Hopeful that they could remain friends after the confrontation, Selena was willing to give Saldivar the chance she had requested - to “prove her innocence and find the missing papers".

Then while in Saldivar, Saldivar phoned Selena to hysterically report that the car containing the documents had been stolen and that she had been raped. Yet Saldivar refused medical care when she returned to Corpus Christi. Instead, she requested that Saldivar meet her at the Day’s Inn motel in Corpus Christi. When Selena and her husband arrived, Saldivar failed to produce any documents.

Afterwards, Saldivar called Selena around midnight on the morning of March 31, 1995 claiming that she was suffering from internal bleeding caused by the rape. During the phone conversation, Saldivar pleaded for Selena to return alone, which she did in the morning.

Once there, Selena drove Saldivar to the hospital where she retracted her rape story. Afterwards Selena drove her back to the motel where they both argued after, it is believed, Selena fired her and planned to return a Faberge Egg ring funded by all of the boutique employees, which she had been misled into believing that Saldivar had generously given to her as a gift.

Upon hearing the argument and a gunshot, a maid cleaning a nearby room looked out the window and saw Selena clutching her chest, screaming for help as she fled from Saldivar who clutched the .38 in her right hand, aimed and fired again.

When Selena made it to the lobby, she collapsed, bleeding profusely from her wound. Although the desk clerk locked the door and called 911 for an ambulance, it was too late. Efforts to revive Selena, despite a blood infusion and electric shocks that briefly restarted her heart, were to no avail. She was pronounced dead at 1:05 PM. Afterwards, tens of thousands filed past Selena’s open coffin to pay their last respects as her body lay in state.

Today, nearly 12 years after her death, Selena’s legacy lives on. Despite the tragedy, Selena made the crossover into mainstream and is an icon whose spirit still lives. Reminder’s of Selena’s warmth, generosity, and indelible beauty are all around Corpus Christi. Mirador de la Flor stands along the Gulf shore while a museum dedicated to her career stands only a few miles away.

Each year thousands visit Selena’s grave, Mirador de la Flor, and the Selena Museum. Selena memorabilia remains popular with rare autographs going at times for more than a $1000. With her continued fame and popularity, it would not be surprising if the United States Post Office eventually issued a stamp to honor Selena’s enduring legacy.

References:

[1] Rick Mitchell. Interactive Corpus Christi Caller Times Biography. (Houston Chronicle), 1995.
[2] Rick Mitchell. Interactive Corpus Christi Caller Times Biography. (Houston Chronicle), 1995.
[3] Joe Nick Patoski. Selena: Como La Flor. (Boulevard Books: New York, 1996) 124.
[4] Clint Richmond. Selena! The Phenomenal Life and Tragic Death of the Tejano Music Queen. (Pocket Books: New York, 1995) 24.
[5] Rick Mitchell. Interactive Corpus Christi Caller Times Biography. (Houston Chronicle), 1995.

[6]
 Rick Mitchell. Interactive Corpus Christi Caller Times Biography. (Houston Chronicle), 1995.
[7] Rick Mitchell. Interactive Corpus Christi Caller Times Biography. (Houston Chronicle), 1995.
[8] Bill Hewitt, et al. People Weekly. (Chicago, April 17, 1995) 49.
[9] Rick Mitchell. Interactive Corpus Christi Caller Times Biography. (Houston Chronicle), 1995.
[10] Rick Mitchell. Interactive Corpus Christi Caller Times Biography. (Houston Chronicle), 1995.
[11] Himilce Novas. Remembering Selena: A Tribute in Pictures and Words. (St. Martin’s Griffin: New York, 1995) 43-44.
[12] Rick Mitchell. Interactive Corpus Christi Caller Times Biography. (Houston Chronicle), 1995.
[13] Rick Mitchell. Interactive Corpus Christi Caller Times Biography. (Houston Chronicle), 1995.
[14] Rick Mitchell. Interactive Corpus Christi Caller Times Biography. (Houston Chronicle), 1995.
[15] Bruce Hagan, Producer; Joshua Kuvin, Editor, et. al. Dateline NBC - Obsession. (April 7, 1995).


The above article was written by William Sutherland.  It is used on this site with the author's permission.


William Sutherland is a published poet and writer. He is the author of three books, “Poetry, Prayers & Haiku” (1999), “Russian Spring” (2003) and “Aaliyah Remembered: Her Life & The Person behind the Mystique” (2005) and has been published in poetry anthologies around the world. He has been featured in “Who’s Who in New Poets” (1996), “The International Who’s Who in Poetry” (2004), and is a member of the “International Poetry Hall of Fame.” He is also a contributor to Wikipedia, the number one online encyclopedia.